It was seven years ago today that I screamed. Oh, sure…there have been many times that I must have taken to screaming, but it’s never been something to remember. But this one time, I will always remember. It was the moment I discovered the first white hair on my head, at the front of my hairline. It was short, about a quarter inch short, and at first I thought it was a piece of thread or something. But no…when I went to pick out the “thread,” it wouldn’t budge, and then the horror sank in: it’s a white hair. I screamed, and everyone came running, thinking I was under attack or something. After all, it was a nerve-wracking week, what with the September 11th hijackings. I made my mom and sister search my entire head to look for more white hairs, but alhamdulillah, there was just that lone one.
I knew immediately why I had that white hair. It was the stress of the afore-mentioned 9/11. I have never written about the impact of that day on me, on my family, on my community. I think that everyone writing about 9/11 all on the same day is a bit of 9/11 overload…and also, once it’s read and forgotten, we just wait for the next year to come around so that we can rinse and repeat. In my weird white-haired head, that is a trivialization of that awful day. So, I am talking about it today.
On 9/11, we did not have a TV in our home. It was a bit before high-speed internet came into ubiquity, so all we knew about the events of the day were from the radio. And I’ll tell you, hearing about it was awful enough. About 5 in the evening, after listening to NPR and Pacifica Radio and other AM channels non-stop, we decided that we needed to see what had happened. My dad spent most of the day slumped on the couch (I have a picture of him in profile, and seeing it brings the anxiety of that day right back), asking why and how could fellow Muslims have done such a horrendous thing. He didn’t want us to go out and get a TV, but we told him that we’ll be safe enough and not to worry too much. We went to Wal-Mart, and all the screens in the Electronic Department were showing the news of the day. My first glimpse of the planes colliding into the WTC was in Wal-Mart. How very American.
We went through the stares of suspicion, anger, and even hate, and a bit of rebellion stirred in me. People were looking at me and my sister, mom, and brother like we were responsible! We weren’t and we aren’t responsible, I wanted to shout! But all I could do was hold my hold up high, and not shy away from making eye-contact with every look of contempt, because little did they realize it, but I was as horrified and saddened and angry as they were.
We came home, plugged in the new TV, and watched and heard more analysis than any sane person should be able to tolerate. But I remember one man, I believe who was a law professor at either George Washington or George Mason University or was it Georgetown?, who said the most disturbing thing. He said that American Muslims should be asked to answer the question, “Are you Muslim first, or American first?” I think that is disturbing, not because I don’t know who or what I am, but because I instantly envisioned two scenarios: If I am Muslim first, will I end up in a concentration camp sometime down the not-so-distant future? If I am American first, will I end up being asked to make my faith an invisible part of who I am? Why can I not be both equally? This question worried me endlessly, and still haunts me. I have more than one white hair to prove it. I’ll never really know if the white hair is a result of 9/11 or genetics, or maybe genetics being triggered by 9/11. But I know that either way, September 11th changed everything, from the way I feel, to the way I think, to the way I interact with other Muslims and the way I interact with non-Muslims, to the way I look.
The scream was a delayed reaction to the events of that horrible day. It was a delayed reaction to the horror of knowing so many innocent lives were snatched away so heartlessly. It was a delayed reaction to knowing that Muslims, who should be capable of so much good, will always have this example of how we are capable of so much destruction.